Building fire safety regulation for resilience

Building fire safety regulation for resilienceImage Credit: Supplied

After dramatic fires in high-profile buildings in Ajman, Sharjah and Dubai, the UAE authorities immediately pledged to update regulations and transform the country's building codes to make buildings more fire safe. As President of Fire Safe Europe, a European alliance that aims to raise the profile of fire safety in buildings, I warmly welcome these initiatives and believe this is the perfect opportunity for the UAE to set world-class platinum standards for building fire safety.

Why? Because the UAE is a global showcase for construction innovation — a country that has created iconic skylines out of desert in less than 40 years. Now, imagine what could be achieved if the same breathtaking level of energy, drive and ambition were applied to building fire safety?

Of course, there are challenges. But they are challenges Fire Safe Europe sees every day around the world. The UAE is not alone.

In 2010 a fire in Shanghai killed 58 after sweeping up the exterior of a 28-storey apartment. In the same year, seven were killed by a fire in a nine-storey housing block in Dijon, France. In 2007 around 250 elderly people had to be rescued from a fire in an eight-storey building in Houston, USA. In Hungary, three were killed in a blaze at an 11-storey building in 2005. Tragically, there are many more examples.

One of the key challenges of regulators everywhere is that modern buildings and the materials used to construct them have changed beyond recognition in the past 30 years. New buildings—as we see in every UAE emirate as well as every country in the world — are now bigger, higher and more complex than ever before. They use innovative materials and systems such as ventilated façades and metal-faced sandwich panels that often have combustible thermal insulation built in.

Many of these innovations were introduced to meet increasing demand for more energy-efficient and sustainable buildings, but the problem is that building fire safety regulations are often unable to keep pace.

This has to stop. Fire resistance has to be factored into regulation and standards for new building products and materials at every stage — from their creation to their installation.

How we achieve this was the focus of the presentation I made at the Civil Defence Authority's annual Fire Safety Technology Forum last Wednesday. Fire Safe Europe wants to share its European experiences and show how our organisation has been working with construction experts, safety professionals, firefighters and policymakers to revise building fire regulations that have failed to keep up with modern construction. Our two-pronged approach has been to develop more robust fire safety codes for buildings and call for more vigorous performance based testing of construction materials.

This second point is critical. It is no use carrying out small-scale laboratory tests on a panel when that panel will form just a minute section of a super-high-rise façade. We need to test products to reflect how they will perform in reality, in-situ.

Top of our list of priorities would be to ensure that all façades in the UAE are free of combustible materials, such as insulation, which have no place in the façade of a super high-rise building. There are many excellent alternatives that not only provide excellent performance — keeping the cool in and the UAE heat out — but also tick all the boxes when it comes to acoustical and fire performance.

In Europe we are also discussing the development of a single, harmonised test for building façades across all 28 European Union countries and have helped countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic strengthen their building codes by limiting the installation of combustibles above a certain height. Now we have been offered an opportunity to help the UAE.

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Source: Barry Lynham, Special to Property WeeklyPW

The author is President of Fire Safe Europe and Group Director of Strategy and Communication at Knauf Insulation


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